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Threats stir sheriff’s race

Schirard told Durango policeman he’d issue summons over ‘lies’

La Plata County Sheriff Duke Schirard, who is seeking his sixth term, is accusing a Durango Police Department sergeant of breaking the law by spreading lies about him during his campaign.

Meanwhile, election law experts say Schirard’s threats to issue Sgt. Geary Parsons a summons for knowingly making false statements about a candidate constitute a fundamental abuse of power.

Schirard has also threatened to fire his deputy, Sean Smith, who is running against him, if Smith made similar statements.

Schirard described the steps he has taken to protect himself from what he said were vicious lies at a meeting Thursday with The Durango Herald’s editorial board that included three editorial board members and three news staff members.

The sheriff said Parsons violated state law CRS-13-109 by telling multiple people – including his opponent Smith – that Schirard had physically beaten two former wives – Lucy Schirard and Lucia Schirard.

Schirard said that in September, he went to the Durango Police headquarters, where he threatened Sgt. Parsons with a summons in person. On the same Sept. 2 visit, he met with Durango Police Chief Jim Spratlen, and warned Spratlen that unless the chief of police demanded that his subordinate quit spreading lies about Schirard, he would issue Parsons a summons.

When asked what transpired between him and Schirard during that meeting, Spratlen responded by email, “no comment.”

CRS-13-109 makes it a crime to utter knowingly “false statements relating to candidates or questions submitted to electors.”

It’s a Class 1 misdemeanor offense under Colorado law that is so difficult to prove, no one has ever been convicted of breaking it, said Rich Coolidge, communications director for the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office.

Lawyer Luis Toro, director of Colorado Ethics Watch, said, “a sheriff doesn’t have the authority to go around summoning people for making false statements about candidates. That’s the (district attorney’s) decision, not the sheriff’s decision. For the sheriff to go around threatening to arrest and summons people without the DA’s signing off is completely improper.”

Toro said the sheriff’s threat to summons “is an empty threat, since district attorneys are extremely reluctant to prosecute people for making false statements about politicians. ... It’s pure political intimidation.”

The secretary of state’s Coolidge said that to his knowledge, under Colorado law, only district attorneys and the state attorney general have the legal authority to do anything about violations of CRS-13-109.

On Thursday, 6th Judicial District Attorney Todd Risberg said his office has never assessed whether it should pursue charges against Parsons for knowingly making false statements about Schirard because Schirard has never reported the crime.

“This is the first I’m hearing about any of this,” Risberg said.

Schirard told the Herald that he threatened to fire Smith if he disseminated Parsons’ story on the campaign trail.

Schirard said he told Smith: “Let me tell you this: If I hear one more person you’ve gone to with this lie – and now you know it’s a lie – I’m going to fire your head so fast it’ll make your head spin.”

Schirard, whose career in law enforcement spans 40 years, denounced the tactics of his political enemies, saying, “I’ve been sheriff over 20 years. In that time, Deputy Smith has utilized the position that I have given him twice – and the ability of his wife to get into every record in my office – to do his damndest to destroy me and my reputation.”

Smith’s wife, Tracy Smith, is an administrative assistant for the investigative unit of the Sheriff’s Office.

Schirard said he has been dogged by unfounded accusations of domestic abuse in previous elections, and “it all emanates from that God-damned Geary Parsons in the police department.”

“I am not going to watch this office be trashed. They go, ‘let’s destroy Duke Schirard by making up a pack of lies and spreading it around to his subordinates who manage the place. Why don’t we pick something that I’ve done terrible in office, not something terrible bad that they said occurred 30 years ago.”

Schirard said when he went to Spratlen’s office, he told Spratlen to either stop Parsons’ malicious whispers, “right now, or I am going to have him served with a summons to court and I am going to walk into a town council meeting and stop this immediately.”

In July, Parsons told the Herald that in 1984 or 1985, he and a fellow sheriff’s deputy were called to Schirard’s house to investigate a disturbance. When they arrived, Parsons said Lucy Schirard’s eyes had been blackened. At the time, Parsons was working for the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office, while Schirard was working for the Durango Police Department. Parsons said his superiors prevented him from formally arresting Schirard that night because, at the time, law enforcement operated like an old boys’ club that looked out for its own, and attitudes toward domestic violence were more permissive than they are today. There is no police report confirming the incident.

The Durango Police Department does not keep dispatch records dating back that far.

Schirard denied all allegations that he had ever battered any of his wives. He called Parsons a liar.

Schirard said, “Lucia Schirard is still a senior dispatcher at the dispatch center. She’s refuted it publicly in your paper. They didn’t do it against her this time, did it against Lucy Schirard, who lives in Naples, Florida.”

During his marriage to Lucia Schirard, law enforcement was twice called to their home in response to reports of domestic violence, according to police reports. No arrests were made in either incident, which took place in 1989 and 1990 before Colorado adopted laws making arrest mandatory in domestic violence cases.

On Thursday, Schirard told the Herald that after he confronted Spratlen, Parsons and Smith in early September, Parson’s attempts to assassinate his character “stopped immediately.”

Interviewed by phone on Thursday, Smith said his meeting with Schirard on Sept. 3 “was ugly.”

“He told me he wanted me to stop talking about his domestic violence because he didn’t want to have to suspend or fire me. I told him I didn’t care about it – it all played out in the paper 20 years ago,” he said.

Four weeks ago, Parsons told the Herald that after Schirard’s visit to police department headquarters, he contacted a lawyer through the Fraternal Order of Police about the sheriff’s threat to issue a summons because he suspected that it constituted an abuse of power.

Contacted by phone Thursday, Parsons said he could not comment on his meeting with Schirard, because Chief Spratlen has told him “not to talk about it.”

Toro said that legally, Schirard’s threat to summons and fire his political enemies is an “egregious abuse of power.”

Toro, with Colorado Ethics Watch, and Coolidge said that in 2011, a jury found that the Adams County sheriff had violated the First Amendment rights of his opponent, an undersheriff, by forbidding him from campaigning in uniform and eventually demoting him. The jury awarded the former undersheriff – who lost the election – $100,000 in damages.

“Abuse of power cases can be expensive,” Toro said. “Especially for voters. The county ended up being liable for what the sheriff did.”

La Plata County Attorney Sheryl Rogers did not respond to requests Friday for comment.

cmcallister@durangoherald.com

Schirard Police Report 1990 (PDF)

Schirard Police Report 1989 (PDF)

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